This work is a fragment of an altarpiece shutter, in which the Saint Lawrence scene on a gold ground would have been oriented to the interior, visible in the altarpiece’s open state. Stripped and bound to a gridiron, Lawrence is roasted over a fire that one of his tormentors stokes with a bellows. The figure wearing a long gray beard and a bejeweled robe and a holding scepter is the Roman emperor who ordered the execution. Although Lawrence is understood to have perished in 258 during the joint rule of Emperor Valerian (reigned 253–60) and his son Gallienus (reigned 253–68), the thirteenth-century Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, the most common source for details of the saint’s life, describes Lawrence’s demise as having taken place under Decius (reigned 249–51), and it is thus probably as Decius that this painting’s original viewers would have identified the emperor figure.
According to the Golden Legend, the martyrdom of Lawrence, a deacon of the Roman Church in charge of the treasury, was prompted by his refusal to surrender the treasury to the emperor and by his distribution of some of that wealth to the poor. Although the legend describes Lawrence’s calm in his final moments, Jacobus de Voragine’s commentary points out the extraordinary suffering involved in death by fire, an aspect that this painting emphasizes through Lawrence’s tormented expression and the bite of the rope beneath his rib cage.
The scene on the other side of a woman tending to a man’s thirst represents one of the six so-called acts of mercy named in the description of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew (25:35–36): feeding the hungry, offering drink to the thirsty, providing shelter to strangers, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. Early Christian authors added a seventh, burial of the dead, thus establishing the group of seven as standard during the Middle Ages. At the upper left corner, the hand of God emerges from a stylized cloud to bless the act. Underneath the cloud, visible with infrared reflectography, is an as-yet-indecipherable inscription that appears to be in German, probably a preparatory notation related to the design or subject matter. The source of this composition could be the Ars Moriendi series of engravings by the Master E.S. (about 1445–50), which features a similarly emaciated man in a bed set diagonally in the picture plane. Although the woman’s gold nimbus is suggestive of sainthood—and saints Elizabeth of Hungary, Hedwig, and Erentrudis of Salzburg have been considered possible subjects—the lack of attributes prevents a definitive identification. It is altogether possible, especially in light of the secular costume, that the figure is not a saint but rather a personification of charity, the halo indicating not the sainthood of a particular person but rather the traits of saintliness and benevolence. Both scenes on the MMA panel demonstrate the painter’s talent for bold design which fully exploits the expressive potential of tightly compressed space. The vitality of his handling is detectable also in the free, direct underdrawing.
When first published in 1954, the panel was, on the advice of Ernst Buchner, localized in Salzburg and dated about 1460. By 1959 Buchner recognized it and two panels in the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift, Trier, as belonging to the same ensemble; the works in Trier depict the Beheading of John the Baptist and the Feast of Herod, and the back of each shows another of the acts of mercy—Giving Shelter and Feeding the Hungry, respectively—administered by the same female figure in a green dress and red cape. Buchner named the anonymous painter the Master of the Acts of Mercy (Meister der Barmherzigkeiten). Given the customary grouping of six biblical acts of mercy, Buchner reasoned that the panels in the Metropolitan Museum and the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift constituted half of the total wing scenes from a dismantled altarpiece. To the same hand he attributed a small Marian altarpiece, the so-called Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece, in the Nonnberg convent in Salzburg, and a double-sided panel with The Adoration of the Magi and The Presentation in the Temple in the Staatsgalerie Burghausen, for which a pendant has recently been identified in The Death of the Virgin in the Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu, Moulins. For the 1972 exhibition "Spätgotik in Salzburg," Rohrmoser endorsed Buchner’s localization of the painter in Salzburg and slightly shifted the dating of the New York and Trier panels from about 1460 to 1465, figuring that they show a stylistic progression from the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece, which circumstantial evidence may date before 1463. In 2011 a fourth panel of the Acts of Mercy ensemble emerged on the art market; now in a private collection, it shows Saint Lawrence before the Emperor and the act of Clothing the Naked, thus allowing a less fragmentary reconstruction of the altarpiece.
A plausible reconstruction, as proffered by Buchner and Rohrmoser, assumes a total of six acts of mercy, according to the biblical number and by reason of symmetry, and arranges the wing scenes in two tall columns, displaying the Acts of Mercy in the closed state, and three scenes each from the lives of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lawrence in the open state. It is possible that a seventh act of mercy, burial of the dead, was depicted on the lost predella. This would have resulted in an especially narrow structure, whose center, a painting or a sculpted shrine, would have been somewhat more than twice as tall as it was wide. Though unusual, such a narrow format should not be ruled out as a possibility, for the art of Salzburg and neighboring regions offers examples of works of comparable dimensions. The altarpiece to which the Museum’s panel belonged plausibly had a Crucifixion or a Virgin of Mercy (Schutzmantelmadonna) at its center, both subjects adaptable to a narrow format and compatible with the iconography of the Acts of Mercy.
Although Rohrmoser’s proposal that the Saint Lawrence scenes occupied the left wing and the John the Baptist scenes the right has remained unquestioned, the opposite arrangement not only creates a more favorable composition in the closed state, with the hands of God establishing a visual rhythm down the center and the repeated female figure girding the combined scenes along the far left and right, but also makes sense chronologically in the open state, with John the Baptist, who came before Lawrence, on the left rather than the right. This new arrangement also offers a logical sequence of the acts of mercy, according to their order in the Gospel of Matthew, if they are read from left to right, beginning from the bottom. This suggests that the two missing acts, tending the sick and visiting the imprisoned, were shown at the top left and right.
The chronology of the Master of the Acts of Mercy’s oeuvre proposed in 1972 and maintained ever since, with the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece falling before 1463, the Acts of Mercy panels about 1465, and the Marian panels in Burghausen and Moulins about 1470, rests on scant evidence. The dating of the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece derives from its representation of the Nonnberg church, held by Saint Erentrudis of Salzburg, in a form that probably predates major renovations begun in 1463. This assumes that the altarpiece’s patrons required the painted church to correspond to the concurrent structure of the actual church. But it cannot be ruled out that the work dates later, after the renovations were begun, and that the patrons wished Erentrudis (d. 718), the convent’s first abbess, to be shown with what is effectively an ancient form of the church. Moreover, with regard to style, although the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece lacks the vigor and expressiveness of the Acts of Mercy panels and the Marian scenes, this is not necessarily reflective of an artistic evolution that would place it at the beginning of the known oeuvre. The more fundamental difference is that the Nonnberg retable is non-narrative; its row of standing saints by nature looks more austere and archaic than the other, narrative subjects. Here, subject matter and type, rather than date, may have been more determinative of appearance. The treatment of space adds a further complication, for although the background of the Nonnberg Crypt Altarpiece consists of a flat expanse of patterned gold, which probably contributed to its being assigned an early date, the very low horizon creates the convincing illusion that the figures actually stand on the ledge below. Comparison with the Burghausen Presentation in the Temple, with its absolutely vertical floor and virtually floating figures, demonstrates the comparative spatial incongruity of a supposed later work.
These considerations suggest that the chronology of the Master of the Acts of Mercy’s works is not as clear-cut as previously presumed. Indeed, in the absence of a larger, more stylistically varied oeuvre and dendrochronological data, it seems premature to align the works in a coherent succession. For that reason, while the traditional bracket dates of approximately 1460–70 are retained here, the sequence proposed in 1972 is abandoned in favor of assigning the oeuvre—including, of course, the Acts of Mercy panels—to the whole decade, until more conclusive evidence appears.
[2014; adapted from Waterman 2013]